USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

U.S. Progessivism

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century witnessed huge changes in U.S. society, many of which have been touched on in this chapter. These changes included the rapid and massive push to industrialize the U.S. economy, the influx of millions of immigrants, the growth of the wage laboring class, the expansion of white-collar and managerial work, the increased globalization of the world "market," the large-scale internal migrations of peoples in responses to social, cultural, and economic factors, and the tremendous growth of cities.

Progressivism, in its most general sense, was a set of responses to problems and issues generated by the rapid changes in American life and work. These responses were often targeted at specific issues, advocated by particular constituencies, and informed by a new type of academic expertise in areas like public health, sociology, economics, and urban planning as well as by the more traditional pleas for moral reform. Areas of reformist focus included female suffrage, workers' rights, educational reform, temperance and prohibition of alcohol, urban renewal, health care, and affordable housing. The progressive movement, as a reformist movement that targeted issues, should be seen in contrast to more radical challenges to institutional power, like that by socialists, communists, and anarchists, who sought to change the foundations of the American capitalist system. Middle-class progressives and upper-class philanthropists, on the other hand, often advocated reforms, which they thought would prevent these broader, systemic challenges from gaining force. 

I would like to introduce some of the ambitions and limits of the progressive vision by discussing one piece of progressive literature, the transcript of a speech called “No Healthy Race Without Birth Control” (March 1921) by the women’s rights’ activist Margaret Sanger. Sanger, responding to many of the social challenges presented above, focused on issues related to birth control and motherhood. In her view, the health of mothers (which is largely, she thinks, a product of the external conditions of their lives) was linked directly to the health of babies. Sanger makes this explicit in her speech: “The well-developed, strong, healthy body is the first requisite for motherhood. And that includes brain development, intelligence and spirituality as well.” For Sanger, this ideal is under threat by the conditions of contemporary society: “Modern life, especially modern city life, is becoming more and more complex. Living conditions are difficult.”

The nature of modern life, Sanger believes, necessitates birth control practices. Why? It is precisely because Sanger thinks women need to be in control of the timing and conditions of their pregnancy and motherhood in order to mitigate the negative impact of the surrounding world. What happens when mothers don’t take these impacts into consideration? Sanger tells us with an illustrative example from a trip to Scotland. There, she discovered babies that “were born tired.” She continues:
Their mothers were tired. These women, as I soon found out once I began to follow this interesting clue, had been tired practically all their lives. Obliged at the age of nine or ten to put in long, monotonous, fatiguing hours in the mills and factories of Lancashire, their bodies became misshapen. And these poor women had practically upon their marriage, been plunged directly into the task of motherhood. There had been no interval of rest and relaxation, no recovery from the permanent fatigue of mill and factory. Their children were born tired.      

So what? Some people are better off than others; this is as it has been, right? Not so for Sanger, and not so for the progressives. Modern social scientific thinking has eliminated the idea that people are only explicable as atomistic individuals. Just like plant species and animal species, which undergo a process (and it is seen as a progressive and positive process) of natural selection and transformation (even self-perfection) humans are seen as linked together and undergoing, as a whole, a transformative process. Sanger says:
The influence of the mother on her child is one so obvious that it is evident to all, and yet only now are we beginning to wake up to its tremendous, its almost overwhelming importance to the next generation and the whole future of our race.

This is an important quote because it reveals to us what Sanger means by “race.” She is not talking about racist ideology as we see in Jim Crow. She doens’t mean “black” or “Italian” or “Jewish,” and as such “race” is not an exclusionary category for Sanger the way it is for some. “Race” means the human race, the united human species. The species as a whole can strengthen or weaken, depending on social development. The universal nature of Sanger’s argument is expressed time and again, as in the following: “Every mother and mother-to-be should protect the fundamental rights of her babies and in fact of all babies.”

Sanger is calling for birth control as a tool to allow women to maximize their individual health and the health of their children. This allowance, she thinks, needs to be extended to all women, because the health of the species as a whole (and, thus, of society) is at stake. But here is where Sanger dips into questionable territory. She views history as a struggle between health and disease. This, no doubt, is rooted in many factors: the discovery of germ theory, genetic theory, Darwinism and the related eugenics movement, and the social problems I mention earlier. Sanger explains:
But today, as always in the past, such mothers find themselves surrounded by less healthy, less intelligent, less discriminating mothers. And the children of feebleminded, the diseased and the mentally dwarfed drag down the standards of schools and society. It is one of the strange paradoxes of human existence that while health itself is not contagious or infectious, diseases—the great social scourges—are. So that health, so precious to the individual and the race, must continually defend itself, defend itself against the inroads of disease and its baneful train of evils and miseries.

This is a very interesting and problematic statement. Sanger is linking “disease” with “evil” (“social scourges”). To a degree, this makes sense. Diseases kill people and plague society, and it is no surprise that Sanger seek to check them. Yet, Sanger isn’t only talking about infectious diseases, like tuberculosis. She is talking about fatigue and intelligence. As such, we can see how these ideas would create pathways toward discrimination against disabled or oppressed elements in society. In addition, by thinking in these categories, Sanger is presenting a hierarchical vision of society: society as a scale from disease to health, from evil to good. The healthy and good represent progress and future betterment; the sick and evil represent social decline. This tension occurs in the following paragraph:
Neither in the neighborhood nor the school should the progress of the normal, healthy, growing child be impeded by those poor little victims of hereditary disease whose bodies and brains are incurably subnormal from the start. While everything must be done to right the wrong that was committed in bringing them with such tragic handicaps into this world, it is certainly not the children of the next generation—the veritable torchbearers of the race—upon whose shoulders this load should be placed.

What are “hereditary” diseases in Sanger’s sense? Genetic understanding is only in its infancy in this era. Based on a faulty projection of Darwinism into short-term generational development in the human context, we find that people in this era commonly saw most physical and mental infirmities as hereditary. This meant, above all, that these conditions were unable to be cured. If a child is labeled from early on as “diseased” or “sick,” and if this status carries a negative connotation, views of the child (not only of the disease or condition) will be negative. Conditions as “fatigue” are not congenital, as they were thought to be in Sanger’s day, and these definitions and labels would have been damaging to the child’s development and would provide the logic for large-scale discriminatory practices. It is not hard to see how such logic could be applied to whole groups or subsets of people. Indeed, eugenic theory had become one of the central ideological structures justifying racial hierarchy, segregation, and xenophobia.

In this piece, Sanger is making a strong case for birth control as one powerful tool to confront modern social problems. Birth control, together with other types of support, Sanger believed, would help lift the general health of the human race and thus mitigate social ills. It would help staunch the spread of disease and promote health. All people, she believed, had the right to this support, and it was a social imperative, in her mind, to supply it. Sanger, like many people in this era, viewed society as an organism. Society was a single body, and as a single body it can be more or less healthy, depending on the organization of life, the conditions of existence. Society, Sanger believed, should try to cure its ills, to promote its health. Instead of creating programs to react to the growing social “disease,” Sanger thought that it would be better to take preventative measures in order to promote health and sustain it.

Sanger’s view of “disease” strikes us today as harsh and out of date, as modern science and medicine have revealed much more complexity in the genetic makeup of human beings and in the relationship (genetically) between parents and children. Eugenic theory, which makes dubious links between constructed notions of social disease, reproductive practices, and individual physical and mental conditions are highly problematic; and they were highly problematic already in the imperialist era before the First World War. Just such “progressive” thought, which Sanger is representing in this speech, was being used throughout the world to push destructive agendas. Sanger’s progressive mission was to provide support for allowing family planning for mothers, in order to maximize women’s health and the health and prosperity of children in the face of challenging external factors like urban conditions and labor exploitation. In doing so, however, Sanger relied on concepts of social health and definitions of disease that were being bent for much darker, discriminatory ends.

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